By Ben Trachtenberg, Associate Professor of Law

Because Professional Responsibility is required for graduation, everyone at the law school takes the course.  Some students wonder, however, if it provides any value beyond fulfilling the graduation requirement.  My answer is yes, but perhaps that goes without saying because I teach the course.

Even if you were raised right and already know not to steal from clients or lie to judges, “lawyer law” presents complicated legal questions for lawyers at all stages of their careers and within all specialties.  For example, how does one satisfy the duty to “provide competent representation” when entering a new area of law?  How does an insurance defense lawyer balance her loyalty to the policyholder (i.e., the “insured,” who may have interests adverse to the insurer) and the insurance company (who likely selects the lawyer and signs her checks, and with whom the lawyer hopes to work again)?  How do lawyers handle clients (or other witnesses) who lie at a deposition or during trial?  What should you do if you think a supervisor is asking you to violate the rules of professional conduct?  Law students who give serious thought to common ethical dilemmas have a better chance of handling them successfully in practice.

In addition to helping lawyers stay out of trouble, careful study of lawyer law presents some employment opportunities.  In April 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an opinion ordering that lawyer disciplinary hearings be public, except in exceptional circumstances.  While the opinion in State ex. rel. Missouri Lawyers Media, LLC is interesting in its own right, it also shows the different “lawyer law” jobs that exist in Missouri.  First, various lawyers are mentioned as “disciplinary hearing officers,” the judges in lawyer disciplinary cases.  Next, one sees lawyers working at the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC), which prosecutes those cases.  And the existence of prosecutors implies the need for defense lawyers, and the opinion indeed lists lawyers in that role.

A Google search for “lawyer discipline defense Missouri” will reveal a few lawyers specializing in that sort of work.  Similar legal work involves the prosecution of licensure complaints (and the defense of accused licensed professionals) in other fields such as medicine, dentistry, and real estate.  Lawyers appear before the Missouri Division of Professional Registration, administrative hearing commissions (with officials like the attorney disciplinary hearing officers mentioned above), and various state courts that hear appeals from the decisions of administrative hearing officers.

A lawyer handling professional licensing defense work is guarding someone’s livelihood and making sure that due process is provided before someone loses the chance to practice his profession.  From the other perspective, the prosecutors (e.g., “bar counsel” at the OCDC) are protecting the public from those who cannot live up to the standards of their profession.  On either side, this is important, complex work.